2013 Rally of the Tall Pines: a Frozen Adventure

Mike Schlee
by Mike Schlee

“You are going to stand in the middle of a forest, in the dead of winter, for hours on end, to catch a glimpse of 30 cars driving by?”

Yup. This is winter rally racing and to those not involved in the automotive culture, spectating at such events sounds downright insane.

Earlier this year Subaru Canada contact me and wanted to know if I would be interested in attending the Rally of the Tall Pines in Bancroft, Ontario with them. Tripping over myself to say yes, I began putting on my snowsuit immediately even though it was still August and the rally was months away.

Rally of the Tall Pines is the final round of the Canadian Rally Championship (CRC). Having been around for decades, the it’s steeped in history and a favorite of North American rally fans. What makes this rally unique is the unpredictable weather. Some years it is sunny and dry, causing the roads to be dusty gravel trails, while other years, like this year, it is the complete opposite and the roads are a gruesome snow/ice mix. Cold weather, slippery roads and bad luck would prove to take their toll as the 2013 Rally of the Tall Pines became a war of attrition; only 15 of the 36 entrants would cross the finish line.

Friday Night, Pre-Rally Shakedown

We arrived at the makeshift paddock area set up on a snow-covered frozen field. Car haulers of various sizes and budgets litter the grounds and we make our way to one of larger trailers there;

the one containing Subaru Canada’s cars. The lead driver for Subaru is Pat Richard, a rally racer from Western Canada who has found a ton of success rallying all over North America. Sharing a stall with him is Max Riddle, an up-and-coming rallier also from Western Canada. While most other competitors take advantage of this night to perform shakedown runs and experiment with set-ups, these Subaru drivers are providing rides for both VIPs and some good hearted charity cases. But that isn’t to say these ride-alongs are not also data collecting journeys.

It is a balmy five degrees Celsius that, combined with a high humidity level, feels like an ice fog being sucked deep into my lungs with every breath.

The CRC is made up of different racing groups that include open (modified) and stock classes for both two-wheel drive vehicles and all-wheel drive vehicles. We wander around to scope out the hardware and spot many different cars that will compete including a few older Volkswagen Golfs, a Toyota Echo hatchback, a Nissan 240SX, a Ford Fiesta front-wheel drive and an imported all-wheel drive Ford Focus. Of course, there are also plenty of Subarus.

We start the day by once again heading to the makeshift paddock called “service” in the rally world. All of the cars are laid out this morning as teams get ready to for the start of this year’s rally. I spot two I missed the night before: an Eagle Talon Tsi and a legendary Peugeot 205 Turbo rally car; I’m not sure which is more impressive to still be running.

Shuttling us around for the weekend, our guides are Jud Buchanan and Keith Townsend of Vehicle Dynamics Group (VDG). Aside from both having been competitors of this rally on several occasions, Townsend was the Chief Coordinator of the Rally of the Tall Pines for three years. Safe to say these guys know their way around the woods.

We arrive at our first location just in time to park the car and walk half a mile down an abandoned (I hope) railway track. Having team VDG pays off already as we are allowed to cross the rally course quickly to get to our viewing location. This location is “the jump: but upon arriving there rally veterans inform me the cars are driving the opposite direction and it is too snowy for them to get big air.

The first few cars are the most competitive and favored to win the rally. They include Pat Richard, Max Riddle and “Crazy Leo” Urlichich all in Subarus, as well as three time defending series champion Antoine L’Estage in his Mitsubishi Lancer EVO. All four of these competitors grab air off of the jump, but it’s

Crazy Leo who quickly affirms how he gained his nickname by launching his Subie high off the jump. Later that night at the bar when discussing his drive, Leo will tell me how he was unhappy at how much he had to slow down due to the conditions; I saw no hesitation in his driving.

This location is part of the rally’s second two and after all of the competitors drive by I notice the Peugeot never made the stage. Sure enough, word comes down he is indeed already out thanks to a blown head gasket.

As we wait to cross back across the course to head to location number two, we are entertained by watching locals at a cottage across the street allegedly Toboggan off a roof; an empty beer cooler sitting by their cars could be to blame. It is only 10 a.m.

Our second point is inside a sharp 90-degree turn that heads over an ice covered one lane bridge. We are right up against the road and can really see how the top ranked cars take the corner’s proper line to launch over the icy bridge with alarming speed. Some of the slower cars take the apex too early, or drive into the corner too deep and a few nearly took out the guardrail. After many near misses, the rear-wheel drive Nissan 240SX gets squirrelly and taps the bridge’s wall.

Saturday Afternoon, Subaru is Happy

After a quick lunch, we begin driving down a five-mile road that happened to be a stage earlier in the day. To say these roads are icy would be an understatement but what surprises me most is how unbelievably rough the surface is; rally drivers take a pounding during an event like this.

We finally arrive at our next viewpoint, which is a high speed section that no other spectators are at since it is at the end of a one lane road. The marshals guarding this checkpoint aren’t sure if we should be here, but once again having a former rally organizer is a big help in convincing people to let us stay.

By this point Crazy Leo has a large lead over the rest of the field and victory is his to lose. But the real story is between Richard and L’Estage. Not only are both drivers locked up in a battle for the driver’s championship, but also one for the manufacturer’s title. L’Estage has a big lead in points, meaning Richard has little hope for the title unless L’Estage encounters an unexpected problem. Earlier in the day L’Estage has suffered a mechanical fault and now sits outside of the top ten while Richard is positioned in second place. Currently he and Subaru could walk away with both titles, but it’s still early in the rally.

During this portion, the VDG guys pull out a radar gun to gauge the vehicles speeds through this long left-hand sweeper on a single lane snow covered road. The fastest cars approach us around 85 mph and are pushing 100 mph by corners exit.

Saturday Night, Subaru is Sad

After dinner at a local restaurant and a lesson in sarcasm from the waitress, it’s back to the rally to watch the special stage where drivers will take two turns around a field-based rallycross course that takes roughly two minutes to complete. It is now completely dark and all of the rally cars have their full retina-searing auxiliary lighting set to blinding levels.

Over the course of the afternoon, L’Estage has climbed back up the rankings and is destined to be the series champion. However, Subaru still sits in the top three positions and could claim the manufacturer’s championship.

But then disaster strikes. Richard blows apart his rear differential on a particularly rough stage and is forced to retire from the rally. Worse yet, Crazy Leo who has been dominating the event since the rally’s opening stage has a camshaft failure and is forced to retire with a mere handful of stages left. This moves L’Estage up to second place overall; enough to claim the driver’s crown and the manufacturer’s trophy for Mitsubishi.

The only consolation Subaru can take from the event is local privateer racer Chris Martin, who with a fraction of the budget and resources compared to the larger teams, wins the event in his 1993 Subaru Impreza. Proof you don’t need to have the latest or greatest equipment in rallying necessarily; you just need to finish. That’s what makes rally racing great, the element of uncertainty around every bend. It is what will make gear-heads come back to stand in the cold year after year.

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Mike Schlee
Mike Schlee

A 20+ year industry veteran, Mike rejoins the AutoGuide team as the Managing Editor. He started his career at a young age working at dealerships, car rentals, and used car advertisers. He then found his true passion, automotive writing. After contributing to multiple websites for several years, he spent the next six years working at the head office of an automotive OEM, before returning back to the field he loves. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA). He's the recipient of a feature writing of the year award and multiple video of the year awards.

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